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Poachers Are Using Cyanide to Slaughter Entire Elephant Herds

Why cyanide is a poacher's perfect weapon—and a conservationist's nightmare.

Melissa Cronin

Melissa Cronin

Photo: Bruce Monroe/Flickr

Earlier this week, a herd of elephants stopped by a watering hole, seeking a respite from the week's 85-degree temperatures. As they filled their trunks poured the cool water into their mouths, they couldn't have known that that same water would be their last. Over the next few days, they would die, one by one, with a dose of cyanide running through their veins.

A total of 26 elephant carcasses were found dead on in just two weeks from cyanide poisoning in Hwange National Park, the largest game reserve in Zimbabwe. The latest incident, discovered on Tuesday, follows a poisoning last week that killed 14 elephants. Many of the carcasses were dismembered, as poachers hurried to remove their valuable tusks before rangers arrived. According to a park spokesperson, 14 tusks have been recovered. Police have made no arrests so far.

At the site of the recent poisoning, the weapon was left at the scene: two pounds of industrial-grade cyanide. Lately, it's become the weapon of choice for poachers in Zimbabwe; in a tragic incident in 2013, they used cyanide to wipe out 300 elephants in the same park.

Cyanide, as it turns out, is a poacher's dream. Not only is it cheap, it's incredibly easy to obtain. In Zimbabwe, where gold mining is a lucrative industry, cyanide is simply a tool. Using mercury and sodium cyanide, smale-scale panners separate gold from ore, often dumping the leftovers into rivers (an environmental nightmare on its own).

Cyanide poured in water holes or on salt licks kills everything it touches

It's not hard for poachers to get their hands on some of the extra cyanide, according to Adam Welz, South Africa representative for WildAid and an expert on poaching.

"As a poacher, poisoning a single waterhole with cyanide gives you a cheap, low-stress way of killing a lot of elephants," Welz told Motherboard. "Once the cyanide takes effect, you can walk around in a small area of bush and chop out a lot of ivory."

Ivory, most often carved into trinkets and ornaments, is lucrative business for people living in the second-poorest country in the world. A pound of "white gold," as it's sometimes called, can fetch $1,500 on the black market. An elephant killed for his ivory can earn a poacher about $21,000, funds that are often helping fuel illicit industries like drug trafficking and terror groups. The ivory usually ends up in the hands of traders in China and the US, the countries with the world's two largest ivory markets.

Most buyers, however, are probably not aware of how their ivory trinket was made. An indiscriminate killer, cyanide poured in water holes or on salt licks kills everything it touches. When it enters an animal's body, cyanide ions bond to the hemoglobin in its blood, preventing cells from getting the oxygen they need to function. It causes seizures, difficulty in breathing, and eventually cardiac arrest, even in relatively small doses. Lions, giraffes, hyenas and painted dogs were all killed in the devastating 2013 poisoning. Even the vultures who feed on the elephants' carcasses have been found dead.

In Hwange National Park, there are 80 boreholes, drilled by park rangers in the 1930s, to discourage animals from leaving the park's boundaries during the dry season and potentially being hunted. Some of the holes are pumped with water year-round, and provide an ideal setting for animals to drink, bathe and socialize, splashing around in a manmade oasis.

But park wardens couldn't have predicted that by creating these elephant hotspots, they were creating the formula for poaching success: lots of elephants congregated in one place, drinking from one water source. And Hwange, with only one plane to conduct anti-poaching aerial surveys, doesn't have the resources to protect them.

"You can have tens or hundreds of elephants drinking at one waterhole in a 24-hour period," says Welz.

That's exactly what happened to the elephants whose carcasses now litter the park's wooded savannah landscape. When it comes to cyanide, elephants are sitting ducks.